The longshoreman cast off, the mooring ropes trailed in the river as the St. Louis, its giant side paddle wheels churned the water to foam, clawing at the surface to overcome the powerful Ohio River flow.
At first it drifted back before gathering speed and moving through the milky morning mist, slipping in and out of the late fall fog banks. On board, its crew stored mooring ropes and secured the cargo while in the ship’s galley, four friends slumped together, asleep after their previous day’s adventures.
“Okay you desperados, sleepy time’s over, time to earn your passage or the captain will have my hide,” the cook said, his voice crashing into eleven year old Mike Stout’s dream.
“Huh…” said Mike, peering through narrowed eyes.
“Time to get up—can’t leave you sleep on much longer,” said the cook.
A blurred white ceiling, the underside of the deck above came into focus. Mike moved to sit up and felt a weight press on his shoulder. He turned and saw a head covered in a tangle of blonde hair as its owner, Hannah Leigh, stirred.
“Oh…Mike,” she said, sweeping hair from her face. She tucked it behind her ear, hitting her sleeping friend with her elbow. “Sorry, Aurelia,” she said.
“Ugh…” Aurelia Ryder said, rousing herself.
Mike nudged Charlie Peyton on his other side.
“Wha…” said Charlie.
The cook’s voice boomed again, “rise and shine, it’s almost time to wash dishes again.”
“Where are we?” said Charlie rubbing his eyes.
“Just picked up some passengers and cargo in Cairo. Next stop Cincinnati,” the cook said. “Here get this into you,” he said, thrusting a plate at each of them in turn.
“How come we’re still here?” said Mike.
“Too much paperwork for the Captain. He couldn’t spare the time to hand you over,” the cook said. “Besides, I told him you did a good job washing dishes last night and seeing as how I’m shorthanded, I told him I’d like to keep you at least until breakfast is over,”
“Thanks mister,” said Mike.
“What’ll happen to us when we get to Cincinnati?” said Hannah.
“The Captain won’t have any choice but to hand you over to the police, I’m afraid…sorry.”
The four glanced at each other with worry written on their faces.
“This your cat?” the cook said, pointing to a black and white cat curled up under the table.
“Yes sir,” said Mike. The cat raised its head and looked at Mike.
The cook bent down and stroked the cat. “How come he’s only got one eye?”
“Don’t know. He’s always been like that,” said Mike.
“Mister, we’re sorry for all the trouble we caused, but—“said Hannah.
“Ain’t no buts can help you now missy.” The cook look at each of them in turn, “Is it true that we run you down?”
“We lost our oars, sir,” said Charlie.”
“So I heard. The skipper was in a real stew, told me he couldn’t change course, tight shipping channel and all. You four are lucky to be alive.”
“Uh-huh,” said Aurelia.
“We were just trying to get back home to Lewiston, “said Mike.
“Downriver?” said the cook.
“No sir, it’s on the Niagara river, below the falls,” said Charlie.
“So that’s where you’re from? I can see how you two boys could be from there, but the girls now, that’s a different story. They’re Cajun, if ever I heard one.”
“Hannah and Aurelia lost their families, so they’re coming home with Charlie and me,”
“We just don’t want to end up on the orphan trains, Mister,” said Hannah. “Do you think we could all get ashore without anyone noticing?”
Now don’t any of you get any more crazy ideas and go running off. I’m sure it will all work out just fine.” The cook said fingering his beaded necklace.
“Are you Seneca,” said Charlie.
“I’m Tuscarora and—“
“—and you should be at boarding school, just like I was. Your folks been hiding you?” said the cook.
“Figures,” said the cook. “What you all doing down south anyway? You’re a—” But just then, what he was about to say was drowned out by the steamboat’s foghorn blaring its presence to other river craft. The cook looked up at the ceiling, waiting as silence returned. “No time to talk now–finish your food” he said, pointing to the four bowls on the galley table.